Monday, April 28, 2014

"More Innocent Times"

Alert the media:  I have stopped watching Law & Order SVU. 

I may momentarily sneak back for a peek at the incomparable “Olivia-Stabler” acting chemistry, but that’s it.  I will no longer watch an entire episode.

Why?  You know the saying, “You lie down with dogs; you wake up with fleas”?  I got tired of waking up with “sex crimes entertainment” cooties.  It admittedly took a while, but I started not to like the “creepy-crawly” way that my binge-viewing made me feel. 

The SVU world is a dark and frightening affair.  If it even close to approximated reality, people would never let their children out of the house.  Or their grandmothers even.

When you come down to it, SVU is “disgusting-behavior-on-a-platter” as a show, unlike the original Law & Order which presented moral dilemmas in a courtroom setting. 

Jack McCoy puts a gun company on trial for murder for manufacturing a legal weapon that could easily be converted into an illegal weapon.  The jury finds the gun company guilty, but, in a surprise climactic twist, the judge throws out the verdict on the grounds that that the jury egregiously ignored the evidence. 

Now, that’s entertainment!

Here’s the thing.  And I have talked about it elsewhere in the comedy context.  The shorthand version:  Laurel and Hardy is not Curb Your Enthusiasm. 

Comedy has changed.

Sometimes, as an explanation for this change I hear, “Those {the Laurel and Hardy days} were more innocent times.”

I honestly do not understand what that means. 

I am aware that the entertainment was more innocent.  Partly because of a production code that restricted what you could show on the screen.  And partly because of the accepted mores of the culture.  As Cole Porter once lyricked,

“In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows
Anything goes.”

And that was in 1934!  So presumably there were even more innocent times before that. 

(My parenthetical “two cents worth”?  You can debate based on specific criteria whether the times were more innocent then or whether the times are more innocent now.  If you singled out our “behavior around death”, for example, one could credibly argue that the times are more innocent now.) 

My hunch is that consciously favored “unreal” entertainment back then the way Torontonians favor going to Florida in the winter – for a much-needed break from a punishing reality.)

As the culture progressed – I had to restrain myself from putting quotation marks around “progressed”, social commentator that I am – comedy got “realer”, meaning its understandings and behaviors more closely approximated our experience of everyday life.  Anything else felt dishonest and jarringly anachronistic.  

I shall now stop writing about comedy which I know something about and write instead about drama, of which, when it comes to today’s TV drama, I know nothing about.  I like to make things harder for myself.  (And to opine ignorantly through my chapeau.)

Barring the aforementioned exception, I do not watch American TV dramas, not on networks, not on cable.  (I specify “American” because of my predilection for British murder mysteries.)  My examples, therefore, come from one source – Law & Order SVU.

A little girl has been kidnapped (and most likely abused.)  The “perp” knows where the kid’s (usually buried alive), but he refuses to say where.  An SVU detective sticks the “perp’s” head in the toilet to get him to talk, so that the little girl can be discovered before it’s too late. 

Years ago, I wrote for the Canadian comedy team Wayne and Shuster, who once did a Clint Eastwood “Spaghetti Western” sketch entitled  “A Fist Full of Fingers” in which the opening line was:

“I’m mean and I’m rotten and I’m vicious and I’m ornery.  And I’m the Good Guy.”  

That’s primarily what’s changed in drama from the earlier “more innocent times” –
what the “Good Guy” is willing to do.  (For a virtuous purpose, but still.  Ew.) 

You’ll have to fill in the blanks for me here.  Think of today’s TV dramas with their protagnonists’ brutalized pasts and questionable morality, and then compare them, if you will, to

Jim Rockford


Barnaby Jones

The Tom Selleck character in Magnum.

The “McGarrett” character in Hawaii-Five-0.

Peter Gunn

Johnny Stacatto.

“Joe Friday” in Dragnet.

And every single cowboy from The Lone Ranger to Matt Dillon. 

All of them fought for justice.  But always

Within the law.

Now it’s flush his head down the toilet and “persuade” him to confess.  (And get the case subsequently tossed out of court because of a “coerced confession.”  And, more often than not, the little kid’s already dead!)

Do we really want our Good Guys to be indistinguishable from the Bad Guys?  Perhaps we do.  Perhaps it makes us feel safer.  To know our protectors are not playing with one hand tied behind their backs.  (The hand that does things the right way.) 

Me?  I greatly preferred the more innocent times.  It is quite possible that they never existed in everyday life.  But did they have to remove them from my entertainment as well? 

It may be arguably more realistic, but now I don’t have a “Florida.”


Greg S. said...

Jim Rockford stepped over the line to "illegal behavior" many times, but it was much more innocuously than most protagonists today. He broke and entered, often engaged in fraud, and actually ran full cons in some episodes. So, while I don't think he fits your list of heroes who never broke the law, it was still very mild compared to today.

Johnny Walker said...

I think it's just swings and roundabouts. Although there's been an explosion in "grittiness" (and I was tired of gruesome, sadistic shows like CSI before they even began) we've also had an explosion in comic book movies... albeit, largely gritty ones.

Eventually people will get tired of the "grit" and decide that sugar wasn't so bad after all.

Yesterday afternoon someone put a clip on in the office of the original 60s Batman movie -- it played brilliantly well. In the stark contrast to the darker current movies, this felt like a breath of fresh air. (If you can't have fun when you're watching a man dress in bat costume and fight crime, when can you?)

I think maybe we'll all ready something a little lighter.